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Juneau election officials had to reject more than 700 ballots received in the October municipal elections.

Some ballots will inevitably be rejected in almost any mail-in election due to human error, missed deadlines or other issues. But last year, issues with the U.S. Postal Service and local verification requirements led to an extraordinarily high rejection rate.

The final tally for the seven contests in Juneau’s October election were too lopsided for rejected ballots to affect the results. The closest margin in any race was 916 votes, between Will Muldoon and Aaron Spratt in a school board race.

But for voters, or rather tempted voters like Breehia Mitchell, it stings anyway.

“So I voted in the election, my very first time with a mail-in ballot. I filled it in, rechecked it. I dropped it at the polls, ”Mitchell said.

She said she has voted in almost every election she has been eligible for in the past 20 years.

“Probably a few weeks later I got a letter saying my signature didn’t match, could I please fill in this, that, and that,” Mitchell said.

It’s what election officials call a “healing letter.” These letters flag a disqualification issue with a ballot and provide the recipient with options to resolve it. In Mitchell’s case, a pair of election workers trained in signature verification decided that his signature on his voting envelope did not match the one on file with the state’s Elections Division.

Mitchell said she made the corrective papers and mailed them. After the election was certified, she received another letter saying that her ballot had not been counted because her signatures did not match. It is not clear from the second letter whether there was a problem with his most recent papers, or whether election officials simply did not receive it on time.

“Um, that made me feel pretty irritated. … What I really wanted to know was how many other people received the letter? ” she said. “You know, for example, among the bulk of the voters of Juneau, how many did not count, you know? ten%? 1%? “

City Clerk Beth McEwen is leading the local elections in Juneau. The data she provided shows that election workers rejected about 8% of the ballots.

“Very, very disappointing for the voters and for our office,” she said.

McEwen said more election mail continues to arrive long after the election ends, so the final numbers are a bit of a moving target. But in December, she explained why each of the more than 700 ballots known at the time had been rejected.

A handful were from ineligible voters: they were registered to vote in another community, or they sent more than one ballot, or they weren’t registered to vote on time. A few envelopes were returned without the ballot inside, and a few other ballots were returned without the official election envelope.

About half were rejected because of a failure with the postal service. They ran after election day without a postmark.

This happened to some ballots in the 2020 election, when voters paid their own postage in the city’s first election conducted by mail. But McEwen said it was a much bigger problem in 2021.

“Because our Assembly told us that they wanted us to pay for the ballots this year (2021), we changed the envelopes to be a business reply mail”, McEwen said.

This type of prepaid postage is normally not stamped. This is because the main purpose of postmarks is to prevent re-use of postage, such as voiding a check. The business reply mail is pre-canceled.

However, a spokesperson for the Postal Service said there was a long-standing policy to stamp election mail regardless of the type of postage, especially because many election laws depend on it.

What really happened was that some ballots were obliterated. Many did not.

“But we only learned that after the fact,” McEwen said.

McEwen said she was in contact with local postal service officials ahead of the election and did not expect this to be a problem.

The Postal Service referred the questions to James Boxrud, a Denver-based spokesperson. In a written statement, Boxrud said: “We recognize that circumstances may arise which prevent ballots from receiving a legible postmark.”

He did not give details and did not respond to requests for an interview or a visit to a local postal facility.

“Without a review of the actual shipments involved, the Postal Service is unable to comment further,” he wrote.

McEwen and the Postal Service said they were once again working together to make sure the 2022 election ran more smoothly.

That leaves yet another big bucket of 323 rejected ballots that were like Breehia Mitchell’s – ballots that had an issue with the voter signature or personal information used to confirm their identity. It’s a date of birth, Alaska driver’s license number, voter ID number, or partial Social Security number.

By comparison, election officials rejected about as many ballots statewide for these reasons in the 2020 general election – a tiny fraction of all ballots cast.

In Juneau’s election, at least 195 people included an incorrect personal identifier or left it blank on their voting envelopes.

State election officials do not have to compare signatures with a registered signature. For local elections, the Juneau Assembly added this requirement before the city’s first election by mail in 2020.

It’s unclear why these were bigger issues in the city’s second.

A state election spokesperson said voters can request copies of the documents with their reference signature and update them with a registration form or a request for a postal vote.

Breehia Mitchell said that next time around, she is just planning to vote in person.

“I mean, I’m not, like, bitter or whatever. But I wouldn’t vote like that anymore, ”she said.

McEwen said she had some ideas to reduce the number of rejected ballots, such as making more ballot boxes available. Other proposed electoral changes will eventually be submitted to the Juneau Assembly for consideration.